Pain, politics and change

Grace Virtue

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

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Just when life was getting better, Papa was hit by a wrecker operating without brakes in the true spirit of a lawless country on Christmas Day, 2010. He succumbed September 2011.

Mama lost her will to fight life anymore and followed October 2012. And, just to punctuate how much things have changed, Shaggy, the family dog, went last month.

Life without them is a painful new normal, but one to which I must adjust because "life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday".

Soon enough, we learn that change is the only constant in life and that much of it is designed to test our best judgement, willpower, character, common sense, and intellect. Whether it is changing circumstances, or swapping old behaviours for something different, change is hard.

You know how hard change is if you, too, have lost loved ones; if you are a mother who has lived your life for the children and now they are all grown; if you are a woman who keeps going back to a man who beats you; if you love someone who does not love you; if you are a man who drinks and beats your wife every Friday night; if you are a smoker fully aware that you are committing suicide — slowly; if you are running up debts that you cannot manage, just to keep up appearances; if you are a diabetic hooked on ice cream.

You also know how hard change is if:

* you grew up in rural Jamaica, barely ever visited Kingston, and one day found yourself in the middle of Manhattan;

* you remember Telecommunications of Jamaica — that place people used to have to go to apply for telephone services just for them to tell you that they have no lines and had no idea when any would be available, and now you have a phone in all four of your pockets;

* you are a member of Portia Simpson Miller's Cabinet, and the target of public derision, barely a year after a sweeping election victory.

It must be especially puzzling to ministers who have been in Government several times over and are doing the same thing the same way they did in the 1970s, 1990s, and 2000s. Why are people so vicious now? Do they think Government can make bread out of stone?

Our private challenges are largely our own business as long as we do not go crazy and hurt others. Those in Government, however, are charged with managing the nation's business. The decisions they make, or fail to, will impact us, and they are paid from the public purse.

They are obligated to, and accountable to the people. They must change when change is required, or go fishing — permanently.

But in our liberal-authoritarian culture, politicians generally seem unable to wrap their minds around the fact that they are servants of the people and not the other way around. That the relationship between governors and governed is one of mutual respect and responsibilities, not one of masters and slaves, or parents and children, and it ought not to be one where those "in power" thrive on the backs of those who are not unempowered.

Meaningless titles, putting neophytes in charge of random ministries with important-sounding names, being given all the external trappings of power and authority, are central to the model of old — intended to create distance between leaders and people, and in some terribly misguided way, to confer dignity and status, and an illusion of worthiness and competence.

It worked awhile back, but people are enlightened now through education, travel, mass and new media-- the catalyst for globalisation. Among the changes clearly taking place in Jamaica is a grinding shift from a high-context to a low-context culture — one where relationships matter less than the merit of the individual or circumstances.

The struggle between the Office of the Contractor General and the Government is nothing more than a profound expression of this change. Greg Christie got it; his "superiors", not quite.

Rightly so, Government is at the epicentre of the clamour for change. People want "new and different", and not the used-car salesman variety espoused by Bruce Golding and promptly abandoned in the name of opportunism, but real and authentic change.

They want an end to the historic rape of the country's resources by those who are supposed to be stewards, and to the "mantle of privilege" bequeathed to a select few by virtue of skin colour, legacy, or proximity to power.

"We want justice," the cry of the ghetto, for example, is not merely about holding rogue policemen accountable for the treatment of dispossessed urban youth. It is a call for social and economic justice denied them over generations — justice that can only come from political leadership, visionary and competent enough to lead change.

It is the people's way of saying that they want change; they want good governance, because as long as things remain unchanged, they will always be subject to brutality and indignity.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) says good governance is "participatory, transparent, accountable, effective and equitable and it promotes the rule of law".

The World Bank (1994) says it is "epitomised by predictable, open and enlightened policy making; a bureaucracy imbued with a professional ethos; an executive arm of government accountable for its actions; and a strong civil society participating in public affairs; and all behaving under the rule of law".

This is just what people want.

Seemingly, there is little understanding of changing realities, and denial about what they do understand.

Experts say leaders in denial exhibit these symptoms:

1) put too much store on past successes;

2) unable to adjust to changing realities;

3) blame others or outside circumstances for things that don't work;

4) refuse to own their mistakes;

5) isolate those who disagree with them;

6) sugar-coat reality;

7) look for Hail Mary solutions;

8) are concerned with the perks of power;

9) lack intellectual curiosity; and

10) surround themselves only with people who agree with them.

Surely, Prime Minister Simpson Miller understands that she must cut the Cabinet and that, as the first woman prime minister, she is being called upon to lead with a special kind of wisdom.

According to Einstein, the measure of intelligence is the ability to change.




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